So hopefully you’ve managed to keep your seedlings or baby plants alive in your veg garden and now you want to give them the best of care to turn them into beautiful productive plants. Here are some tips on the best way to feed and water those babies so you get a wonderful harvest later on in the summer.
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Protect your Soil with Mulch
You may have heard the word ‘Mulch’ bandied around gardening spheres and wondered what the hell it was. Well simply put it’s a layer you put on soil to protect it. In winter mulch prevents nutrients from being leached out of the soil by wind and rain, while in summer it suppresses weeds and prevents moisture evaporating. Mulch will also improve the structure of your soil and may, depending on the type, enrich your soil as it is broken down by worms and organisms is the soil.
When to Mulch
The key issue with mulching is timing. Mulching too early in spring prevents the ground for warming up, mulching after a dry spell will actually keep the soil dry by preventing rain from penetrating. My advice is to mulch after a few days of good rainfall, when you’re starting to see the weeds growing again. If you mulched in the Autumn and the mulch is still visible on the beds then, if possible, rake it off to the side to allow the soil warm up and absorb moisture and then rake it back over.
Types of Mulch
There are many types of mulch, including shredded leaves, compost, old farmyard manure, bark chip, mushroom compost, grass clippings and straw. All will contain some form of nutrients but compost made from vegetation is the best if you want to feed your soil. It’s also the mulch that is said to be best if you’ve an issue with slugs. If you’re using a mulch that hasn’t been composted like bark chip or fresh manure, do not put it around plants. It will rob your plants of nitrogen as it decomposes.
Also a word of warning about compost. Different types have different nutrient profiles. Rotted-down horse manure is great for leafy veg but it’s rich in nitrogen and not potassium so your flowering fruit and veg may fail to thrive. Similarly mushroom compost is very alkaline and may need additional nutrients added to it to balance it out. It’s best to ask your supplier for a balanced compost to make your life easier.
According to Charles Dowding ‘Horse manure is at a small risk of contamination by aminopyralid weedkiller, occasionally sprayed on grass for horse-hay. Its the only weedkiller I know which persists, and its lethal to potatoes, tomatoes and legumes, whose growing tips become curled and twisted.’ I’ve seen evidence of this happening in Ireland in 2019 with cow manure.
Where to get Mulch
If you’re you’re trying to garden organically, particularly if you’re growing fruit and veg, consider the content of your mulch, any mulch from a non-organic organic source is going to contain chemicals, which may or may not be acceptable to you.
Also be aware that organic compost only needs to be 51% organic to use the term. This means that certified organic compost can contain material sprayed with weedkiller and insecticides, and seeing as it can take 2-5 years for these chemicals to become inactive you may inadvertently end up putting harmful chemicals into your garden. The only way to be 100% sure that nothing nasty is going into your garden is to make your own compost from your own garden and kitchen waste. See my guide on composting and composters to get started.
If you can, try to get the mulch without packaging, i.e. delivered loose. I have sourced mulch in returnable bags from Landscape Depot in Dublin 24 but if need a decent amount I’ve managed to source peat-free 100% organic mulch made in Ireland, which I can get delivered loose, i.e. package-free. They’ve very helpfully given a list of stockists so you can find a supplier close to you.
How to Lay Mulch
You’ll need to lay down about 2-3 inches of mulch to successfully insulate soil and suppress weeds so I’d advise you to get whatever you can afford and obtain locally.
One important thing with mulch, and you’re going to like this, is that you don’t dig it in. In fact there is a new school of thought that says you should NEVER dig over a bed, because doing so damages the soil structure leading to lower yields. It also releases carbon sequestered in the soil back into the atmosphere. It’s called the No Dig method and one of the best know proponents of this is Charles Dowding in the UK.
I’m personally not a fan of any sort of matting over the ground and haven’t found the need to use any. If however you do and want to avoid plastic landscape fabric then consider this certified organic hemp & linen straw weed suppression fabric, made in France. It doesn’t appear to be certified as being compostable, but if it’s 100% natural material that’s been mechanically fused – which you’d need to check – then it might not need one.
Feeding your Plants
Some people don’t give their plants any liquid feed at all, preferring instead to feed their soil with compost rather than feed the plants directly with soluble food. Here’s a handy guide on how deficiencies in soil nutrients can manifest in plants.
Buying Plant Food
The key thing with shop-bought plant food is it’s nutrient profile. You want to make sure that it has the right nutrients for your plants. Fruiting plants will need more potassium than nitrogen, while leafy veg is the opposite. If you give plant food with the wrong profile to a plant you could inhibit growth or fruiting. Most plant foods will clearly display what they’re suitable for, if they don’t they’re probably a general fertiliser with a balance of all the nutrients most plants need. You can also get plant food specifically for ericaceous plants if you need.
In terms of Irish brands of shop-bought plant food I’ve used two;
- Irish, organic, sustainably-harvested, seaweed-based Ocean Leaves
- organic pellets from Irish company Grow it Bio
You can also buy organic wool, cow manure or mushroom compost pellets from the Irish company Larkfield Pellet Products and if you live close to them in Kildare they’ll do refills for you.
Here’s a nice article on other options for liquid plant food by organic gardening suppliers Fruithill Farm.
Make Homemade Plant Food
Alternatively you can make your own homemade plant food. This takes a bit more effort but it’s free, and generally zero waste.
How to make Comfrey Tea
Comfrey has very deep roots to enable it to extract nutrients from far below the soil’s surface, which it stores in its leaves. By harvesting the leaves and using them to make comfrey tea we’re releasing these nutrients for our plants. Comfrey is especially rich in potassium, making it the ideal feed to promote flowers and fruits in a range of plants, including tomatoes. Making the tea is very simple just
- find a lidded container*,
- fill container with comfrey leaves – wear gloves, leaves and stems can be prickly
- fill container with water (rainwater preferable)
- leave to stew for 4 weeks
- when ready dilute the tea at a ratio of one part comfrey to 10 parts water and apply to plants. The comfrey tea smells a bit like drains when it’s ready, so be prepared!
You can also check out this Comfrey Feed Tutorial by Gardeners World.
I’ve heard that adding borage (see photo above) to comfrey tea can improves it’s effectiveness. I’ve a few borage plants in my garden, which came in a cheap ‘wild flower’ mix I purchased a few years back. The bees go mental for it and it’s a pretty plant, so a win win!
How to make Nettle Tea
Nettle tea is rich in nitrogen, which is good for promoting leaf growth. You make nettle tea using exactly the same method as that for comfrey tea and Gardeners World has a video on making nettle feed too.
Using Wood or Charcoal Ash to feed plants
Wood ash or lump charcoal is a great source of potassium. You can either sprinkle the ash directly around the base of plants, being careful not to get it directly on the leaves or stems – or make it into a tea to water around your plants. I sieve the cooled remnants of the charcoal we use on the barbeque to separate the dust from the pieces, then add 2 tablespoons of the dust to a 1 gallon watering can and water as normal. Any pieces are just put on the compost head. I would only do this with lump charcoal or untreated timber, otherwise you could be putting toxic chemicals on your plants. Also bear in mind that wood or charcoal ash is alkaline so don’t use on ericaceous plants, like blueberry, gooseberry, elderberry or cranberries.
How to Sustainably Water your Garden
Honestly there is only one sustainable source of water for the garden and that’s water from rain water. We have two rainwater butts in our garden and honestly we’d be lost without them.
I’ve written a separate article on Choosing and Installing a rainwater butt, check it out.
What to Water in the Garden
I don’t water the ornamental plants in my garden, unless they’re newly planted or look drought-stricken, but I do water my fruit and veg because water is so important for fruit setting and development.
Some plants need more watering that others and really the only way to be sure of who needs what when is to keep an eye on them. You can do as much harm over-watering as underwatering. I find it best to check plants once a day or a few times a week to see who might need a drink, being careful not to overwater. If the plant doesn’t look like it needs a drink leave it be. I have ‘canary’ plants that shows signs of under-watering quickly. If it’s in need of a drink it gives me advance warning that other plants that are slower to show signs might need one too.
When to Water your Garden
Avoid watering in the middle of the day for two reasons; firstly water that splashes on the leaves can act like magnifying glasses and result in damaged leaves, and secondly the water will evaporate from the ground more quickly than at other times, which is wasteful. I find the best time to water is the morning because in the evening you’re providing the perfect conditions for slugs to come out.
How to Water your Garden
It is advisable to give plants a good long drink every so often rather than a small amount more frequently. If we only use a small amount of water the moisture doesn’t penetrates down into the soil. This encourages the plant to keep it’s roots in the top layer which makes it more susceptible to drying out during a dry spell. When we give plants a long drink the water penetrates deep into the soil, encouraging the plant’s roots to grow downwards, making it much less prone to drying out in the future.
On a sloping bed place a large perforated plastic, or clay pipe vertically in the the ground beside your plants. Then simply water into the pipe instead of on the ground. This will ensure that the water gets directly to the plants’ roots and not run off down the bank. The pipe also serves as a bit of a slow-release reservoir, allowing water to slowly seep towards the roots requiring less frequent watering. This also works very well with plants that need a lot of water like tomatoes or cucumbers. Living Green has a very useful article on how to make your own homemade ‘olla’ with terracotta pots.
How to Rescue an Underwatered Plant
If you forget to water and plant and it’s completely collapsed don’t dowse it with tons of water, in stead give it sips over a longer period to bring it back to life – if possible – and then water as indicated above from there on out.
When plants dry out their cells get completely desiccated and weakened. If you give it too much water at this stage you can cause the cell walls to explode and therefore kill the plant. Better to go softly, softly until the plant looks healthy again. I would suggest giving a little and then 5 minutes later given a bit more and then 5 minutes more again.
If the plant is in a pot of compost then repot it in fresh compost once it’s revived. Most composts, particularly peat-based ones, loose their ability to hold moisture once they’ve completely dried out.
Check out the other articles in this series
- Growing Fruit & Veg: Design and Layout
- Growing Fruit & Veg: Raising seedlings,
- Growing Fruit & Veg: Planting Seedlings Outdoors
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Selecting Plants
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Planning for Summer
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Spring Colour
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Early Summer Colour
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Mid Summer Colour
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Late Summer Colour
- Wildlife Friendly Gardening
- Sustainable Gardening Hacks
- Guide to Composters and Composting
*Most supermarkets or delis get ingredients delivered in large plastic tubs. I’ve found them very willing to give some to polite customers that ask.